Debra is Prizmah's Director of Network Weaving. Learn more about her here.

Valuing Women in Jewish School Leadership

Living Our Lives 

Fifteen years ago, when I was the head of an Orthodox Jewish day school, there were the beginnings of whispers about equitable pay for female leaders, leadership pipeline challenges, leaders’ emotional and mental health, and the complexity of the role of head of school. Fast forward to today and those topics are front and center in our communal landscape. Some days, from my 10,000 foot perch here at Prizmah, I have the privilege of imagining what could be true of our field fifteen years in the future. It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who once quipped, “What you do speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you are saying,” reminding us to live our values at each and every moment. I have the privilege of working in a field of Jewish day schools and yeshivas that continuously and passionately urges us to live out our values.

Hiring Trends 

However, I recently noticed a curious trend which calls into question whether we, as a day school and yeshiva field, are truly embodying the values that we hold dear. 

Over the past three years, the hiring practices at Jewish day schools and yeshivas shed an interesting light on ongoing conversations about gender parity in the field. In 2020, 44% of open Prizmah headships, including both long-term and interim positions, were filled by women. That number decreased in 2021 to 30% of open headships and held steady this year at 31%. Said in a different way, for the past two years approximately 1 in 3 Jewish day school and yeshiva boards who were searching for a new head of school hired a woman for the role. In addition, the percentage of women hired by Jewish schools across the religious spectrum has dropped in noticeable ways in recent years.

If our values suggest that women have the potential to be hired at similar rates to men in the field, then we’ve got work to do.

The Vision

At Prizmah, one of our strategic priorities is the work of Deepening Talent, investing in the current and future talent pool of Jewish day school and yeshiva leadership. As a data-driven organization, we compile research on fieldwide trends to enable schools to have critical context for their own leadership practices and decisions. And in our work supporting schools in hiring leaders, we help them to ensure that they find the best leader possible for their school. We know with certainty that communities ready for women in these roles benefit from female role models, who amplify the existing diversity of voices and range of leadership styles.

The Current Reality 

Within Prizmah’s network of schools, 43% of the Reform, Schechter, and Community day schools are headed by women. However, among Orthodox schools, the numbers are lower than in the field as a whole. Given the extremely high percentages of women working in education writ large as teachers, learning specialists, counselors, division heads and support team members, the overall lower percentages of women in senior leadership positions in this sector represents an opportunity for individual and communal growth. 

Five years ago, Nishma published a research profile of American Modern Orthodox Jews with nearly 4,000 modern and centrist Orthodox respondents. In that study, 93% of respondents agreed that women should have expanded roles in Modern Orthodox organizational leadership. If that research reflects newly shifted cultural realities and communal norms as it seems to suggest, then what are the factors which are preventing more women from being hired as heads of school? Prizmah’s early research uncovers a range of factors, including job descriptions requiring semichah, leadership expectations out of alignment with the lifestyle of Orthodox women, and a lack of intentional leadership pipeline. 

Beyond these factors, the impact of Covid has been disproportionately felt within the female workforce than with their male counterparts. A number of suggestions have been made for addressing the return of women to the workforce, including those articulated by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine:

  1. " Supporting caregivers via financial help, improved childcare infrastructure, and family-supportive policies; and 
  2. Supporting workforce development via training programs for women, greater access to male-dominated jobs, and mental health services." 

The Plan

Prizmah has made a commitment to design intentional, strategic interventions in order to support leadership development for Orthodox women, to explore their access and obstacles to leadership positions, and to share their wisdom, experience and creative thinking with the field. We are working to ensure that current heads of school and rising leaders receive support to strengthen their leadership capabilities and profiles through cohort-based programs, mentoring and access to consultants.

In addition, we have commissioned two research studies to explore both compensation patterns and the cultures and conditions which enable Orthodox women to flourish in senior leadership positions. It is our hope that through this portfolio of work, communities interested in working with Orthodox women in senior leadership positions will encounter a robust cadre of candidates, current Orthodox female heads of school will thrive in their roles, and the field will have access to the necessary data in order to undertake intentional strategies for change.

The Invitation

Join us as we imagine a healthy future for schools in the field. A future in which the roles of senior leadership are easily navigated together with family life and the mental, spiritual and physical health of our school’s leaders are of utmost priority. And one which includes a masterful, creative and diverse range of leaders, so that our students see that the Jewish future requires and benefits from the leadership strengths and styles of all its members.